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Moral Philosophy Needs a Moral License to Offend

Rights Theory, Current Events Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, two of the most prominent moral theorists alive, published a column at the New York Times  about the Anna Stub...

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Rights Theory, Current Events

Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan, two of the most prominent moral theorists alive, published a column at the New York Times  about the Anna Stubblefield sexual assault case. Among other things, they question whether Stubblefield could really be said to have harmed her victim:

A central issue in the trial was whether D.J. is profoundly cognitively impaired, as the prosecution contended and the court seemed to accept, or is competent cognitively but unable to communicate his thoughts without highly skilled assistance, as the defense contended. If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.

On Facebook and elsewhere, I mostly see philosophers react with outrage. Some say Singer and McMahan are monsters, others say that they suffer from outrageous moral stupidity, and still others say that Singer and McMahan are offensively ignorant.

Now, I’m not interested here in debating to what degree Singer and McMahan are right or wrong. Instead, I want to discuss a meta-philosophical issue.

Here’s my thesis: Moral and political philosophy require a license to offend. If we want to do good work, we have to give each other permission to argue on behalf of morally bad or evil things, and (as a corollary) we have to avoid getting outraged by one another. (I think something like that holds true of comedy, by the way.)

Why think that? Well, consider the questions moral philosophy has to ask: What makes something a moral patient, to which one can owe duties? What makes something a moral agent, which owes duties? Do different things have different kinds of standing? What rights do we have and why? When may we violate or trump those rights, if ever? When, if ever, do non-moral concerns trump moral reasons? What makes an action harmful? Why is rape or sexual assault wrong, and can it be less or more wrongful, more or less harmful under different circumstances?

These are difficult questions. One reason they are difficult is–as I think Peter Singer, among others, has shown us–is that most of us have conflicting and contradictory intuitions and judgments about the answers to these questions. If you ask the average person why an adult human has rights but a rock doesn’t, that person will give you answers which imply (even though the person doesn’t intend to say this) that very young children or severely mentally disabled people don’t have rights or only have very weak rights. If you ask the typical person what makes rape harmful, they’ll give you an answer which will imply (even though the person doesn’t intend this) that raping a baby is not as bad as raping a typical adult, etc.

Our commonsense moral judgments are a bit of a mess. Philosophers notice the conflicts, try to sort them out and resolve them, or argue we should eliminate some judgments in favor of others when we can’t resolve the conflicts. But it’s more or less inevitable that in their attempts to answer such questions, they’re going to defend positions which offend other people’s sensibilities. And sometimes, maybe not this case, but at least sometimes in other cases, the problem won’t be with the offending philosophers but with the offended other people.

Philosophy also has the job of critically examining our basic beliefs for granted. Most people have something like a set of metaphysical, epistemological, and axiological beliefs, but philosophy is in part supposed to challenge those beliefs and see if they withstand scrutiny. A great deal of moral progress comes from subjecting such beliefs to scrutiny. But it can also lead to bad results.

We can also learn a great deal from seeing and responding to arguments for things we find offensive. For example, I have students in my PPE course read Mussolini and Gentile’s “The Doctrine of Fascism” as well as sections of Hitler’s My Struggle. They regularly say these are two of the best readings. In particular, many of them are disturbed to discover that accept Hitler’s premises in his argument for why Germany should be able to conquer other lands. (This was especially true among students at Brown; less so at Georgetown)

I don’t want to push hard on the “everything’s offensive to someone” line, but there’s something to it. I joke in the beginning of my manuscript When All Else Fails that the historical purpose of political philosophy has been to rationalize evil. It looks to me like almost every political philosopher through history spends most of his or her time trying to explain why people in power should be held to lower than normal moral standards. Many of my colleagues see themselves as defending the poor and downtrodden, but to me it looks like many of their ideas about economics are simply outside the realm of reasonable debate. I expect that giving many of my colleagues (even the self-described anarchists) the policies they want would lead to gulags, mass starvation, democide, and authoritarian politics. I see many of my colleagues as providing moral cover for rent-seekers. Most democratic theory reads to me like a sixty pages of arcane Dungeons and Dragons bullshit followed by the conclusion that groups of people can violate individuals’ rights at will. When other people in the field are offended, half the time it looks to me like they’re pushing to get themselves and their friends increased status, power, and money.

(They of course disagree.)

If I wanted to, I could be offended all the time. But I’m not.

Imagine writing with the worry in the back of your mind, “If I get this wrong, my colleagues will say I’m evil, ostracize me, and try to get an Internet mob to come after me.” I don’t see much progress being made in an atmosphere like that, and, incidentally, it sure doesn’t seem to me like the departments where people are quick to take offense are the places publishing ground-breaking work.

If we’re going to do moral philosophy, we need to give each other license to defend evil things. Otherwise, the only reasonable alternative is for pretty much everyone other than Chris Freiman, Michael Huemer, Bas van der Vossen, and me to quit, since most of the rest of you keep offering arguments for morally wrong conclusions.

P.S.: I see certain people claiming that Singer and McMahan are only saying stuff like this because they are white men. If you’re going to assert something like that, be scientific about it. For instance, you could collect data on what people think, who they are (their demographics), and then test various cognitive traits (IQ, knowledge, logical aptitude, background in philosophy, or whatever might be relevant). With those three sets of data, you can then statistically determine whether people’s beliefs are explained by their demographics (while controlling for their cognitive traits) or by their cognitive traits (while controlling for demographics). Don’t just assert it.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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